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Murtha aide pulls ahead in special election race

A close primary race has divided Republicans in the late Rep. John Murtha's district and has helped Democrat Mark Critz take the lead in the special election to replace him, according to a Susquehanna Polling & Research survey.

Critz leads GOP nominee Tim Burns 44 percent to 38 percent with one week to go. Voters on Tuesday will pick between the two to fill Murtha's unexpired term and will choose their parties' nominees for the general election in November.

A majority of Democrats back Critz in the primary over challengers Ryan Bucchianeri and Ron Mackell Jr.

Burns is locked in a statistical dead heat with Army veteran Bill Russell for the Republican nomination, according to the poll.

"He's fighting a two-front war. The Russell challenge is very significant," said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling & Research. The poll of 400 likely voters took place Monday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

The race has drawn national attention, with money, advertisements and high-profile support flooding in from Washington on behalf of Critz and Burns. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who captured the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat, will stump for Burns on Friday. President Clinton will campaign for Critz on Sunday.

The sprawling district extends from east of Johnstown to the corner of the state in Greene County. Though Democrats hold a registration advantage of more than 2 to 1, the rural district is the only one in the country that voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election and Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Murtha, the longest-serving congressman in state history, represented the district for more than 36 years until his death Feb. 8. Some of the loyalty many still feel for him has rubbed off on Critz, Murtha's former district director.

"He was Congressman Murtha's right-hand man down there," said Theodore Clites, 62, of Lorain.

Clites is among the 52 percent of voters who disapprove of President Obama's performance. Burns, through television advertising, has tried to tie Critz to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seeking to capitalize on voter anger with Washington.

But for voters like Clites, who saw the region benefit from one of the most entrenched incumbents in Congress, links to the Capitol aren't a bad thing.

"It takes someone that's been there and knows what's going on to take over in John's footsteps," Clites said. "And Mr. Burns doesn't have it."

With such a large registration advantage, moderate, undecided Democrats such as Carole Ivory are key to winning the district, Lee said. Ivory, 64, of Johnstown said she supported Critz "just because he was Murtha's man." But after watching a recent debate, she's undecided.

Critz "just seemed very unsure of himself," Ivory said. "The reason I was voting for him was because I'm hoping he would keep the jobs here in this area."

The economy, the new health care law and federal spending top voters' concerns, according to the poll. The health care bill remains unpopular, with 55 percent opposed to it, and Burns has promised to repeal it. That's reason enough for Republicans like Herman Frohnhofer to back Burns.

"I think the whole thing, spending and everything, is just getting out of control," said Frohnhofer, 65, of South Huntingdon.

Burns' internal polling shows him leading Critz by 7 percentage points among voters who can correctly name the election day, which shows "intensity is on our side," said campaign manager Kent Gates.

"Voters want change. They want to stop Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, and that's what's going to happen on May 18," Gates said. He expressed confidence Republicans backing Russell would support Burns in the special election. "The Republicans are going to come out and vote for their candidate."

The Russell campaign, however, is not endorsing Burns in the special election.

"We have no animosity toward Mr. Burns, although we do think he was somewhat of an opportunist, jumping in after everything that has happened this past year. But we certainly do hope he wins the special election," said Russell spokesman Steve Clark. "We're not (endorsing) anybody. We're not running in the special election. We're running in the primary."

That might not be good enough for Burns, Lee said.

"Burns needs every bit of the Republican vote in order to pull this off," Lee said.

Critz's lead expands to 19 percentage points among so-called super voters, those who voted in at least three of the past four primaries, Lee said. Burns leads by 6 percentage points among those who voted less frequently, Lee said. "They're going to really need to jack the turnout up to pull this off."

Critz's campaign released a statement saying they are "proud of all the support for Mark's campaign to create jobs and get the economy back on track."

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